Stephen Harrigan's two-story house is located in the Terrytown section of Austin, an older residential neighborhood of ranch houses favored by professors and professionals. Big trees and yards lining streets with names like Bridle Path and Cherry Lane lend the area a pastoral charm, but it is also conveniently close to downtown Austin and the campus of the University of Texas. Go a little farther east and you are in danger of drowning in a sea of undergraduates; go a little farther west and you are in the hills that climb above Town Lake, where the secluded houses are big and expensive, and the yards tend to end at a cliff's edge.
It took a flurry of calls to Boulder, Colo., where Harrigan is working on location for CBS making a film about Laura Ingalls Wilder, for PW to arrange this appointment. Harrigan's first script about the author of Little House on the Prairie was successful enough that CBS commissioned him to write a follow-up. Harrigan is on the road most of the week working on the sequel, but he has time to meet with us before he has to attend a writer and poets' benefit in Houston. These days, Harrigan is an awfully busy man.
He's going to be even busier this spring when he embarks on the author tour for his third novel, The Gates of the Alamo (Knopf). Aransas and Jacob's Well, Harrigan's first two novels, were published to critical acclaim, as was his nonfiction diving book, Water and Light, but The Gates of the Alamo, already in its second printing only a week past its early March pub date, is poised to break new ground.
Harrigan's house is a little boxier than its neighbors, and the yard isn't quite so lush. The author walks PW through the house, and introduces his wife, Sue Ellen, who makes coffee. The three of us briefly engage in that staple of Austin discussions--the terrible traffic--and then Harrigan leads PW to his office, a converted backyard shed.
The books and papers that clutter the office announce the professional writer. However, the visitor's eye is immediately drawn to an array of foot-high plastic dolls on top of one of the bookshelves, representing real or folkloric figures from America's past, all mounted on prancing plastic ponies. These are '50s collector's items, which Harrigan has kept from his childhood. He rather sheepishly points out Jim Bowie, sandwiched between George Washington and Geronimo, but denies that the doll had any influence on how he visualized the Bowie in his novel.
What the figures do show is a continuity between Harrigan's pre-adolescent hobbies and obsessions and his writing interests. He claims, in fact, that he has planned to write about the Alamo since he was 14, "because it had such an impact on me as a kid." Seeing the actual Alamo in San Antonio was less of a catalyst than seeing Fess Parker in the Disney three-part TV drama about Davy Crockett, which created a nationwide phenomena when it aired in 1955 (not to be confused with the John Wayne-directed movie of 1960, which was widely panned)."The thing with the cap had a galvanizing effect upon me," he jokes.
He's only half kidding when he elaborates: "There was a wonderful photograph in Life Magazine of all these kids standing next to the Alamo, and it is just a sea of coonskin caps. That movie was the Star Wars of its time. The other, really more primal thing is that--this being a more innocent time in the 1950s--there had never been a movie in my experience in which the hero dies in the end. That was a very traumatic event, and a lot of 50, 55-year old men now are trying to come to terms with it." After considering this statement for a second, we both laugh.
Still, it raises a question. Can the history that thrilled Americans in the "innocent" '50s still engage people today? As Harrigan himself admits, "The last thing you want to read about, in a way, is the Alamo." The Gates of the Alamo proves that statement false. The narrative follows a number of real and fictitious characters as they converge bloodily in Texas in 1835. The cast includes a virginal botanist, Edmund McGowan; a widowed innkeeper, Mary Mott, and her son, Terrell (who makes it out of the Alamo before it falls); an ambitious Mexican officer, Telesforo VillaseÃ±or; and a slave, J . It also includes real people, like Mexican leader Santa Anna, Crockett (portrayed as a corruptible Southern politician, with a nice sense of the balance between bunkum and shrewdness characteristic of the breed), William Travis and Jim Bowie. The final third of the book, which shows how the collision between Texas stubbornness, greed and naivete and Santa Anna's monomaniacal rule leads to the Alamo's fall, reads like great war reporting, but it is the book's smaller touches that communicate the sensibility of the time: Mary Mott's killing of a Karakawa brave, for instance, with its insistent gruesomeness, or Edmund McGowan's long, belated journey to sexual maturity. Harrigan realizes that some readers will find the spectacle of a 44-year old virgin male ridiculous, but he feels that his character reflects the moral climate of the time. He also doesn't see such a scenario as impossible. "I grew up a Catholic and met a lot of priests who seemed to be following a vow of chastity. It isn't untrue."
An Epiphany Behind a Lawn Mower
Harrigan was born in Oklahoma. His stepfather, who was in the oil business, moved the family first to Abilene, then to Corpus Christi, a midsized town on the Gulf of Mexico south of Houston. "I didn't really discover nature until I moved to Corpus Christi," he says.
In Corpus, he began a love affair with the ocean in particular that informs all of his nonfiction, from his essays for Texas Monthly to Water and Light, his book-length account of diving off Grand Turk island, at the southern end of the Bahamas. It is also the underlying theme of his first novel, Aransas, which is about capturing and training dolphins. Harrigan still possesses his 1961 copy of John Lilly's classic, Man and Dolphin. He also recalls the thrill of seeing his first dolphin. "I was a kid going fishing on a boat and this was just after we moved [to Corpus Christi]. I was sitting in the boat when all of a sudden this beast came out of the water. I couldn't believe it. I had never heard of dolphins. I didn't know what it was."
Harrigan attended the University of Texas at Austin, in the '60s. His time in high school had convinced him that he was a writer, but he didn't know what he wanted to write. He enjoyed the rambunctiousness of the period. "Our recreation was demonstrating," he says. But he was not a "front-line" guy. After graduating with an English literature degree, "I stayed here. You have to understand that if you grow up in Texas, and you see Austin, you get an impression at 17 or 18 like going to Paris. It was such a sophisticated place. To an extent, I'm a victim of my own provincialism, since it never occurred to me to go anywhere else." Harrigan worked as a yard man and wrote p ms (he even had a book of p ms published, Sleepyhead, which "is a rare item now, justifiably").
"The first magazine story I wrote I published for $150 in Rolling Stone. I was mowing yards one day and I thought, I bet I could write magazine articles and make more money. And then I started doing some pieces for the Texas Observer, which was when Molly Ivins was editor there. Somebody saw my pieces for the Texas Observer and told Greg Curtis, who is now the editor at Texas Monthly, but was then the assistant editor. I started a freelance relationship with them, and then joined the staff around 1980 or so, and worked full time for a long time."
"I wrote oddball stories. I've never been much of a journalist. My curiosity tends to run elsewhere. I've never written about politics or business. I never even read the paper with any degree of attention or interest. I was at a strange kind of cockeyed distance from the magazine world. Ultimately, being a magazine writer served me well because it got me out of the house. It triggered my curiosity about things I would never have looked at otherwise."
Harrigan has collected some of his pieces in two books, Comanche Midnight and A Natural State: Essays on Texas. His pieces do for Texas what Joseph Mitchell's pieces did for New York: define the essence of the place by highlighting the margins. He has produced several pieces on Texas history, from the Battlefield of San Jacinto to the resurvey of the Camino Real, which was the ancient route used by Spanish explorers on their way into Texas. He has written several excellent essays of natural history, from a large, sad piece about the pollution of Galveston Bay to an essay about exploring Big Bend Park with a zoologist who has a contract to extract parasites from roadkill. The zoologist, who is always scanning for specimens, will remind readers of The Alamo of Harrigan's character, Edmund McGowan. Reading the essays, one sees how they work as a source for Harrigan's fiction.
Harrigan is less keen on the naturalist genre now. "It feels a little too confining to me, a little too rhapsodic. I am interested in the human relationship to nature. I find Thoreau and Edward Abbey and those people less and less interesting. Thoreau's just kind of lecturing me on what I should feel, or lecturing me on the superiority of nature to humankind, when I feel that the kind of unexplored territory is humankind as part of nature. I think when we reject or embrace nature, we tend to detach ourselves from it. Those are two poles of the same logic, in a way."
Harrigan's move to magazine writing coincided with his meeting Sue Ellen Line on a blind date. When they married, they agreed that Sue Ellen would stay home and take care of the kids, who soon numbered three, all girls. Even as a staff writer at Texas Monthly, Harrigan's responsibilities as the family's sole breadwinner were daunting. Still, he persevered with his fiction while he was working on his articles. His first novel, Aransas, actually grew out of a magazine piece he did about capturing dolphins. Aransas was published by Texas Monthly Press, and was chosen as a notable book of 1980 by the New York Times. Harrigan's first agent, John Sterling, sold his second novel, Jacob's Well, to Simon & Schuster before becoming an editor at Houghton Mifflin. Houghton gave Harrigan an advance to write his diving book, Water and Light, but unfortunately, although unanimously praised, it sold poorly. "Divers, it turns out, don't read very much." Like Harrigan's collections of essays, the book is now on the U.T. Press list.
In the '80s, Harrigan also started writing screenplays. He and his neighbor, author Lawrence Wright, got some movie scripts, saw how it was done, and wrote a screenplay they actually sold. "Beginners luck," Harrigan says. Although the script was optioned by Sydney Pollack, it was never made into a film. A long dry spell followed, until finally HBO bought one of Harrigan's scripts and made it into a TV movie in 1992. Since then, he's added screenplay writing to his schedule.
The Alamo book was at first signed by Sterling for Houghton Mifflin, "but when John moved to Broadway Books it was orphaned."
"Larry [Wright] knew Ann Close at Knopf. By this time Esther Newberg at ICM was my agent. She submitted it to Ann at 100 pages, who accepted it. But it turned out the book took five years longer than I thought it would."
Harrigan knows that any account of the Alamo will be examined from every angle in his home state. Although he believes revisionism has gone too far, he hasn't tailored the book to fit the "myth of the Alamo as an ennobling defeat," which is of course the Texas party line. "The myth is this glaze you have to hammer through to what might be the reality. There's no more powerful myth in American history than the Alamo."